Just sit back and get ready to marvel at R Ashwin, for the 100th time

R Ashwin strikes a pose ICC via Getty Images

Sometimes, the caption writes itself.

Joe Root is out, lbw to a delicious, round-the-wicket offbreak from R Ashwin. The combined effect of the bowler's angle, the ball's drift from leg to off, and its turn in the opposite direction has made Root fall over to the off side and almost stumble to the floor in his failed attempt at a leg-side flick. He momentarily uses his bat to prop himself up, and your eyes pause on the sticker.

New Balance.

Sometimes, the caption writes itself, and this one worked on at least three levels. It could have been a comment on what that ball did to Root, or on the state of the match: England had begun the day in control of the Ranchi Test, and India were now all over them. Or it could have announced, in a nod to more than one Tamil blockbuster, that the hero, having spent the first half of the film taking blow after blow without retaliating, had now taken a firm, vein-popping grip of his machete.

Before this innings, Ashwin had taken 12 wickets in this India-England series at an average of 38.83. He had ended only one of his 19 previous home series with a worse average, and only two of them with a 30-plus average.

If you had been watching him bowl, you would have struggled to identify any real reason for his unusually slim returns. These things happen sometimes, especially over samples as small as three-and-a-half Test matches, but in the context of this series, against this opposition, playing this brand of cricket, and at this stage in Ashwin's career, it seemed to mean something. It put an uneasy feeling in his fans' stomachs.

They need not have worried. Or perhaps saying that is just another way of taking Ashwin for granted. The man is a five-for machine - he picked up his 35th in Ranchi, drawing level with Anil Kumble while having bowled in 49 fewer innings - but each of them has needed him to find a way to get on top of a different line-up in a different situation on a different surface.

In Ranchi, he bowled with the match in the balance, with the series potentially at an inflection point, on an unusual sort of pitch that made him attempt an unusual style of bowling. A style for which, as he later put it, he had to "literally rewire" himself.

Watch the Root wicket again and it's evident that Ashwin bowled this ball with pure sidespin, the seam rotating clockwise from point to square leg. He had employed this square-seam release right through this spell, maximising drift and using the new-ball lacquer to try and get natural variation off the surface. The complete reliance on sidespin at the expense of overspin was perhaps also a reason why he overpitched on more than one occasion: he wasn't even trying to get the ball to dip on the batter, so the margin for error when he tried to go full was minimal.

In a way, the half-volleys Ashwin bowled, which Zak Crawley used his reach to punish in particularly ruthless manner, elevated his spell. They shone a light on the difficulty of this craft that Ashwin has spent much of his career making look simple, and its jeopardy: get it slightly wrong, and it becomes the easiest thing to punish.

More often than not, though, Ashwin got it just right. He took the wickets of Ben Duckett and Ollie Pope off successive balls that drifted significantly - into the left-hander, away from the right-hander - and turned very little, if at all. Duckett, like a number of other batters in this Test, propped forward with the threat of low bounce seemingly on his mind, and popped an inside edge to short leg.

Then Pope, a victim of more than one Ashwin special in the past, was beaten all ends up by another: trapped in the crease, playing across the line, squared up, lbw.

The Pope ball also revealed another thing that differentiates Ashwin from most fingerspinners. Very few umpires would have given this lbw in pre-DRS times, but Ashwin belongs to his time, and does everything he can to maximise its returns. He bowled this ball from so close to the stumps that he was almost in front of the umpire when he released it, so that it was still on course to hit leg stump even though it pitched somewhere between middle and leg, and hadn't really straightened against its initial angle.

The stumps are bigger in the era of DRS, and Ashwin's mastery of angles and drift allows him to keep them in play more of the time, and in more devious ways, than pretty much anyone else.

The Root ball was another example of this. When it left Ashwin's hand, Root may have thought it was on course to pitch outside leg stump, but when it landed it was exactly in line. The magic of drift. Ashwin's only first-innings wicket had come off a similar ball, a ball that must have given Jonny Bairstow the illusion that it was safe to sweep, only to drift and land in line with leg stump rather than outside.

Just in line, but still very much in line.

The great spin bowlers frequently occupy these liminal zones, with the barest of divisions between the ball as it appears and the ball as it actually is.

These balls tend to cause as much confusion off the field as they do in the batter's mind. One predictable outcome of the Root dismissal was the fanning of a DRS non-controversy by a former cricketer who ought to have known much, much better, and its amplification all over traditional and social media.

It's not new for Ashwin's artistry to get lost in the fog of random noise. It's the world he inhabits.

In the days since his Ranchi masterclass, he will also have noted, with a wry smile, the scorecard from the Wellington Test match, and the numbers in the wickets columns of Nathan Lyon and Glenn Phillips. Glenn Phillips! Over the last few years, Ashwin has also seen Keshav Maharaj, Jack Leach, Neil Brand and Dane Piedt take bagfuls of wickets in New Zealand. When India have gone to New Zealand, however, or to South Africa or most venues in England, they have invariably come face to face with greentops designed to neutralise their spinners. The lack of a five-wicket haul outside Asia and the West Indies is viewed as a gaping hole in Ashwin's CV, but in denying him a real chance to fix it, India's oppositions have paid him perhaps their greatest tribute.

It has been noted before on these pages and elsewhere, but it's worth repeating: of all spinners who have bowled in at least ten innings in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa since the start of 2018, Ashwin (30.57) has the second-best average behind Nathan Lyon (28.41).

Ashwin has every tool a spinner needs, and then some, to take wickets anywhere in the world. He just happens to play in an era where India have another world-class spinner who happens to be the world's best allrounder, and where India can pack their side with four fast bowlers if the conditions call for it.

None of these arguments will ever quieten the chorus that Ashwin is a home-track bully, and the insinuation that the home tracks Ashwin has played on have been a homogenous succession of square turners. No amount of painstaking reasoning can fight that chorus, and Ashwin has probably made peace with that fact.

But here are some other facts. Better average than Shane Warne. Best strike rate of any spinner with at least 150 Test wickets. More wickets and five-fors in India wins than anyone else. You probably know all these things already, but you probably don't realise how astonishing they are just yet.

And that is a good thing. If we are still waiting for that realisation to dawn, it means Ashwin is still there at the top of his mark, muttering to himself as he twists the ball into his palm, still making you guess which load-up he will choose today, still engaging in pedantic debates with umpires, still racking his brain for new ways to get batters out.

At his core, that's what Ashwin is: a getter-out of batters. One of the greatest there has ever been. He has brought up two hugely significant milestones during this series, and perhaps nothing sums him up like the order in which they've come: the 500th wicket before the 100th Test. Do the math, and marvel.